Spring Creek Success

A Spring Creek Expert Talks Technique.

No matter what time of year, spring creeks always seem to be a viable option. In the dead of winter, they continue to flow. During the height of runoff, their water remains clear. Best of all, in the spring and summer, spring creeks see some of the most prolific hatches of the year offering dry fly junkie a bug laden paradise. However, even when the water is boiling with risers, spring creek success demands a technically sound approach. Check out the Q&A below with Simms Ambassador and Spring Creek Expert, Brant Oswald and learn how your next hike/wade trip on your local spring creek can become more productive.

Simms: We all love to float, but it’s always nice to take a break from the oars and do a little hike/wade fishing from time to time. What is it that you love so much about fishing on foot on the Livingston spring creeks?
Oswald: Well, I moved to Livingston, Montana in 1987 and I landed here because this area gives a trout angler the best of both worlds: I can float a big Western freestone river like the Yellowstone and enjoy world class spring creek fishing the same day. I love both fishing experiences, but the pacing and approach are different. In some ways, the river itself dictates the pacing of a float trip. On spring creeks, it’s a much more thoughtful, self-directed process. I personally really enjoy the challenge of hatch based fishing and getting in tune with the natural processes that are going on around me.

Simms: What exactly do you mean when you say, “hatch based” fishing?
Oswald: Of course, all fly fishing is tied somewhat to the fish’s natural food sources, but on a spring creek, it’s more direct. Fish behavior is connected very closely with insect activity. What some people call “matching the hatch” sounds pretty self-explanatory but there’s more to it than just identifying what bug is hatching and picking a similar artificial out of your box. One of the reasons I fish is for that “aha” moment and hatch based fishing gives us that opportunity. Of course, you need to know hatches, but even further, you have to figure out what stage of the bug the fish are eating, how to approach the fish, how to make a good cast, get the best possible drift, etc, etc. There are so many variables, but when you put it all together, it’s highly rewarding.

Simms: Do you think spring creek fishing makes you a better angler?
Oswald: Absolutely. I actually put together a presentation for fishing clubs a couple of years ago based around that idea — the question of what spring creek fishing teaches us about other trout fishing. As I worked on that program, I realized the real answer is “everything”. What do I need to teach my clients to be successful on a spring creek? Let’s see — reading water, a careful approach, intelligent fly selection, well-tied knots, accurate casting, sound presentation and line management skills, hooking and playing fish…I’d say that’s the basic skill set for any trout angler. So-called “technical fishing” on a spring creek fishing forces you to sharpen the same skills that will make you more successful on any trout stream.

Simms: So lets talk a little more about spring creek success. It may be somewhat localized to the Livingston spring creek system, but do you feel that the sight-fishing aspect helps you or hinders you?
Oswald: First of all, you make a good point in that local knowledge by so-called “experts” does not always translate to other fishing situations. I’m convinced having the ability to sight fish is almost always an advantage, at least on my local spring creeks. I try to remind my clients that sight fishing is just a logical extension of learning to read water, but instead of fishing where you think a fish is likely to be, you are fishing to the fish itself.

Simms: How about talking through some of the specific advantages?
Oswald: One is that the fish move from deeper resting lies to shallower feeding lies. I see lots of people walk through the shallows to blind fish a deep run when in reality, they’re walking right through feeding fish or at least standing where the fish want to feed. Spotting fish often lets me fish to active feeders that are totally missed by most anglers. Another thing I see on our creeks is that it is rare to see a fish hold in a specific spot, even during a heavy hatch — they are on the move as they feed. Knowing that, I often tell my clients that if they’re casting to a rise form, they’re casting where a fish was and not where it is. If you can’t keep your eyes on the fish, you become less accurate with your casts, not just in terms of space, but also from a timing stand-point. Sight fishing allows us to watch the feeding behavior of a specific fish which in turn, allows us to make our cast not only in front of the fish so it can see it, but also in the right rhythm so the fish is ready to eat when the fly reaches it. A final advantage of sight fishing is being able to see refusals. Especially as a guide, refusals are extremely valuable feedback. If you actually see a fish refuse one pattern multiple times, making 100 more casts with the same pattern, at least with the same presentation, is not going to be any more successful. Change flies, change the presentation, or change fish!

Simms: What would you say are the three most critical aspects of successful fishing on spring creeks?
Oswald: There are so many factors but if I had to boil it down to a critical three, I would start with taking the time to use the observing skills we have talked about. Plan your strategy and tactics. Pick an individual fish — and target that fish. Think about the best angle to get close without spooking the fish, what kind of current the fish is sitting in, how you will get the best drift, and so on. I see lots of anglers rig flies before they approach the water, crash into the stream without looking, wade noisily, and scatter their casts in every direction. It cuts down on success, and it seems to me they are missing what spring creek fishing really offers. If our success is measured by putting fish in the net, I would say the other two most critical factors are casting accuracy and good knots.

Simms: How about breaking these three elements down a little further?
Oswald: Sure. I think I have harped enough on the first element — keeping our senses tuned in to what’s going on around us. With regard to casting, one syndrome I see is that many of us learn to cast pretty well at medium distances but struggle making accurate casts at short range. On the spring creeks, I would much rather have a client who can put the fly on the target at 30 feet than one who can sling a full line. A related issue is overall leader length — lots of folks show up thinking the fishing requires 15 to 20 foot leaders. In my opinion, that’s just not the case. Most of the time, I start with a 9 ft. 5X leader, built down to a working 6X or 7X tippet, and that 10 to 12 foot leader is long enough. If you do choose to use really long leaders/tippets, make sure they don’t exceed a length that you can cast accurately — in my experience, accuracy is way more important than an extremely long leader.

Simms: How about knots?
Oswald: Tying good knots may seem like a no brainer when the fishing scenario combines sizeable fish with light tippets, but I find most folks are pretty sloppy with their knots. Modern tippet is so strong that if you fish to smaller fish with 4X or 5X, you can tie bad knots and play fish poorly and get away with it most of the time. Combine 6X or 7X tippet with an 18″ brown trout that feels the hook point in a few inches of water, and you have a situation that will seriously test your knot tying skills. The biggest mistake I see is that the tier doesn’t tighten the knot all the way. And especially with light tippets, test and retest all of the knots in your leader system frequently. You might notice that wind knot before it costs you a fish, or maybe even find out you can’t see that little dry fly because you broke it off 10 minutes earlier.

Simms: On spring creeks, are you typically throwing only dry flies?
Oswald: Nope. I start with the idea of maximizing a client’s chance to fish to rising fish or actively feeding fish, but that’s not the same as fishing dries exclusively. I do get clients that only want to throw dries and that’s completely fine by me, but that’s not the mindset that makes sense to me. One of the things I really enjoy about spring creek fishing is that I feel it gives me the opportunity to sneak into the natural rhythms of moving water, hatching bugs, and feeding fish — in some sense, I want to fool them on imitations of what they are eating. If I see the fish eating mayfly duns, I want to catch them on a dry fly. If I see them eating emerging nymphs subsurface, I’d rather catch them sight nymphing. From a guide’s perspective, not forcing the fish to play the human’s game also makes us more efficient and usually helps us get a few more fish in the net, something I’ve noticed my clients like. 

Simms: So you don’t feel short changed if the dry fly thing isn’t happening on the spring creek? 
Oswald: Not at all. That’s the great thing about spring creeks is that even when the fish are eating subsurface, it’s still extremely visual. In fact, in some ways, sight nymphing adds another dimension, to the game we get to play. Think about it. Dry fly fishing is great but really, it’s a two dimensional game. With sight nymphing, we start with the same playing surface, but now you have to assess the depth of the fish, whether it is feeding at that depth, how to rig to get to that depth and so on. I love to teach sight nymphing to clients because it keeps me as an integral part of the fishing process, which allows me to teach them new skills they can use when I am not around.

As I tell my clients these days, give me a crappy weather day when I think the hatch will be strong so we can fish to rising fish, or give me good spotting light. If we can see the fish — and they are feeding at all — we’ll catch some. The days that strike terror into my guiding heart are windy days with cloud cover. That means indicator nymphing in deeper water or throwing terrestrials. These techniques will certainly catch fish, but there are so many other interesting games to play on a spring creek, I prefer to make them a last resort rather than my first choice.